To celebrate our nation's independence, we are featuring our key to the U.S. Capitol. It was donated to the Maces' on January 10, 1936 by William R. Eaton, a Senator for Colorado in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Though this key may look unremarkable, it unlocks a grandiose building and past replete with trial and tribulation.
The predominant symbol of the legislative branch, not to mention the U.S. government and America as a whole, the Capitol Building was first commissioned in 1791 to be built on land selected by President George Washington. The first designer was dismissed a year later and, as suggested by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, a competition was held instead. Unfortunately, none of the entries were deemed "wholly satisfactory." It wasn't until October 1792 that a plan was selected and approved by the commissioners and Washington.
Although work on the three-sectioned building began in September 1793, some rooms were still incomplete due to budget constraints when Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the D.C. courts moved into the building in 1800. With the allocation of funds by Congress and the appointment of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, construction was renewed until the War of 1812 diverted money away from the project again.
By 1818 a new architect, Charles Bulfinch, was supervising construction. The following year chambers for the Supreme Court, House, and Senate were all ready for use. By 1829 Bulfinch’s work was considered finished, and his employment with the government ended.
Modifications and improvements continued until 1850 when, despite the Capitol’s vast size, it couldn’t fit all the senators and representatives from newly admitted states. Another competition was held, and, once again, none of the entries were exactly what Congress wanted, leaving President Millard Fillmore to select a plan and architect. He chose Thomas U. Walter.
Under Walter’s direction extensions for the Capitol, Treasury, Post Office buildings, and Marine barracks in Pensacole and Brooklyn were completed, as well as designs for the Patent Office building and the restoration of the Library of Congress after a fire burned it in 1851. Construction paused during the Civil War. During this time the Capitol functioned as a military barracks, hospital, and bakery.
After the war the Statue of Freedom and a new dome, including Brumidi’s The Apothesis of Washington, were added, extensions completed, and the building modernized. Work to fireproof the Capitol began in earnest after a gas explosion and fire in the north wing in November 1898.
For the next several decades, basic cleaning and refurbishing occurred. In 1958 work began on the East Front extension, managed by J. George Stewart. This expanded the front of the building by almost thirty-three feet. It also included repairs to the dome, the construction of a subway terminal under the Senate steps, cleaning both wings, birdproofing, furnishing the new rooms, and improving lighting. All this finished in 1962.
Major projects since then included restorations for the country’s 1976 Bicentennial anniversary, renovations of the West Front, strengthening the structure’s masonry with steel tie rods, replacement of sandstone blocks with limestone, and the conservation of various artistic structures throughout the building.
The latest and greatest project at the Capitol was the Visitor Center. The center opened in 2008 and is almost as large as the Capitol itself! Yet this massive structure is actually located underground so as to not ruin the view of the Capitol itself.
Every year millions of people visit the Capitol Building. While us here at The Baldpate may not receive millions of visitors each season, we likewise contain years of history and stories to be shared with the public and are a key part of the Estes Park community and Colorado history. Visit http://www.aoc.gov/history-us-capitol-building for more information about our Capitol. Hope to see you soon at The Baldpate to see this remarkable key for yourself! Have a happy Independence Day!
Key Room Museum Curator